I love Darkest Dungeon, which is why I decided never to finish it.
It’s the only reasonable response to a game whose gruesome charm fades so drastically overtime. Its cruel world and Lovecraftian savagery rival games like Sunless Sea and Don’t Starve, but stay too long and you’ll eventually see its grizzly nightmare transformed into a middle-manager’st daydream.
The first time I lost someone in Darkest Dungeon was a thing of morbid beauty. Maybe it was a rookie plague doctor who went mad after suffering one-too-many critical hits, or a veteran leper who had been the party’s un-official leader and met his untimely end after too many stab wound bled him dry. The more painful these losses felt, the more sublime Darkest Dungeon became.
“There, but for the grace of god, go I,” is the game’s mantra when you start. No matter how well lit you try to keep your torch, no matter how much extra food you keep on hand for your band of mediocre adventurers, there’s simply no preparing for every potential tragedy that can befall them. Even the best laid plans will eventually turn to shit, if not complete and utter slaughter.
Contrary to the sadism of games like Dark Souls, which is meant to be fought, and eventually mastered, the pain brought by a game like Darkest Dungeon is meant to be invited, respected, and reveled in. Whereas other games have patterns that can be memorized and navigated, the consequences spawned by a random number generator are unpredictable and unforgiving. It was this disdain for my attempts to try and control it that helped me fall in love with Darkest Dungeon in the first place.
While every other game wanted me to keep getting better at it, this one seemed to be saying “Stop fighting it. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose, and most of the time there’s nothing you can do about it.” Since the game is constantly saving, there are no do-overs. Fail to leave the dungeon when everyone in your party is on the brink of insanity and there won’t be any second chances to tell them how sorry you were for sending them to their deaths.
But there’s another side to Darkest Dungeon. One that doesn’t begin to surface until much later into the game. If the game starts as a sort of haunted house where the mechanism for exploring its terrors is a turn-based RPG, it ends in a drab cubicle filled with sterile spreadsheets that calculate risk. Everything in Darkest Dungeon costs money, except for people. In its most macabre conceit of all, the game eventually reduces all of its heroes into livestock.
In order to beat the game, you have to assemble not just one but a minimum of four groups of hardened warriors, since after each successful run at the final dungeon sees that band of characters retired from the game forever. As a result, it becomes imperative to grind dungeons with your veterans surrounded by fresh recruits, sacrificing the new blood in order to protect and slowly train up the old. Instead of something to dread, or to avoid, death becomes just another blip in the calculus of how you get from one point to another.
This is the game’s Cookie Clicker end-game, where the excitement of entering each new dungeon and deciding whether explore that last room is replaced by the tedium of simply getting through it so the next level can be gained and a few thousand more gold added to the balance sheet. When it started to feel like each dungeon should have a brute force option, where game’s equation of probabilities could play out on its own with no input from me, that’s when I realised it was time to pack my bags.
The last dungeon itself is perhaps the best example of this, doubling down on the maladies and overpowered creatures that were once employed only sparingly. Like a horror movie that tries to frighten by virtue of bigger and bigger jump-scares, drenched in more and more gallons of fake blood, the result is, above all else, exhaustion. In the end, I didn’t quit Darkest Dungeon out of fear, but because of how endlessly tiresome it eventually became.